Athens, Tennessee, city manager resigns as new council takes office

Staff photo / Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Sept. 27, 2019, in Athens, Tenn. Sumner has resigned.
Staff photo / Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Sept. 27, 2019, in Athens, Tenn. Sumner has resigned.

After the mayor and vice mayor of Athens, Tennessee, were voted out of office last week, the town's city manager resigned Monday.

The City Council -- which has not yet sworn in the new members -- voted 4-1 on Monday to approve a proposal to end City Manager C. Seth Sumner's employment. The move paid Sumner six months' salary and benefits in return for his resignation.

The action happened a day before the two new members and one re-elected member were set to take their posts Tuesday night, one of them a man currently suing the city and with a history of being at odds with the city manager, the mayor and some council members.

Sumner was hired in 2016 to be Athens' city manager under an employment contract that after four years allows him to receive six months pay and benefits if his employment ends without cause, according to documents and city officials. Sumner couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

On Monday, Athens City Attorney Chris Trew told council members and local residents the city manager had a proposal for his exit from employment for the council to review.

"Of course, following the election results, I think the city manager and others based on the rhetoric and things that were said during the campaign realized that once the new council was seated, he more than likely was going to be terminated," Trew said in a video of Monday's meeting posted on social media.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the proposal for Sumner's termination was approved, and Sumner agreed to resign.

The vote was 4-1 with Councilman Dick Pelley voting against accepting the proposal for Sumner's resignation. Pelley said earlier in the meeting that he thought the new council should take up the matter, not the outgoing one. Pelley, who was re-elected last week, didn't respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Over the past couple of years, Sumner has been at odds with former police Chief Cliff Couch, members of the community and some City Council members regarding management problems with city employees. Sumner also was named along with the city and other officials in at least two lawsuits claiming First Amendment retaliation by him and the city.

In a First Amendment retaliation suit filed by resident Glenn Whiting, jurors sided with the city in April, while another federal suit seeking $6 million filed by the former police chief alleging First Amendment retaliation by Sumner and the city is still pending in court. There is also a suit filed against the city in McMinn County Chancery Court by one of the incoming members of the council.

  photo  Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Athens, Tenn., City Hall, soon to be under new management, is seen on Jan. 20, 2022.
 
 

Larry Eaton -- who filed the Chancery Court suit and was to be sworn into office Tuesday -- said Sumner's exit was going to cost the city about $74,000, including benefits, but that would allow officials to move ahead.

"I think the existing City Council did actually do the proper thing for the city and go ahead and end his employment with the city of Athens," Eaton said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I am pleased that we are fixing to be to moving forward and make Athens the city it used to be where we respected and had love for each other."

Eaton said his suit against Sumner and the city was in the process of being concluded. Eaton alleged in the suit that Sumner and the city charged him almost $1,000 for copies of public documents, tallying the bill at Sumner's hourly salary of $54 per hour. He said that suit and others will likely be addressed in upcoming meetings.

Incoming Councilman Steven Sherlin said the agreement to terminate Sumner's contract and the way it was reached was fine with him.

Sherlin said he was glad the new panel could hit the ground running in its first meeting Tuesday. He and fellow newcomer Eaton attended Monday's meeting, he said.

"I didn't like some of it in the beginning," Sherlin said Tuesday. "But when Chris Trew brought his recommendations out, I thought it was a lot fairer. The council went with his recommendations. I think it turned out best for Athens."

Sherlin said the agreement is based on Sumner's contract and is legal.

"The bottom line is the problem is gone and the city can move on," Sherlin said.

Meanwhile, the standing panel of City Council members on Monday appointed current city finance director Mike Keith to the interim city manager's post. Keith said he has no plans to keep the post and will return to his job in the finance department as soon as he is replaced.

"My intent is that this will be a temporary appointment to give the new City Council that will begin this evening an opportunity to decide how they want to proceed going forward," Keith said by email. "I will serve until they decide whether to appoint someone else to be the interim or until they appoint someone to be the new city manager."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.